It’s a safe bet that the basis of most watch lovers’ relationship with their watch is, first and foremost, with the way it looks. What’s on the inside is secondary. Of course, it’s good to know that the mechanical movement is a solid, reliable one, but for most it will typically remain a mystery, closed inside the case. But what if it wasn’t?

Enter the open-dial and the skeleton movement: the former a means of peeking, Wizard of Oz-like, behind the curtain; the latter a way of making the view look as pretty as possible, through tiny architecture and by cutting away any extraneous material. Doing that is also a benchmark of the maker’s capabilities – because exposing a movement not only means there is no means to hide defects, but skeletonising it takes audacious research and development and, invariably, serious hand-craft.

The result is a long way from the sports watch – invariably the skeletonised watch is not as rugged; visually it’s much busier, even ornate. Nor is it a new idea – it was in the 1769s that French watchmaker Andre-Charles Caron first reworked his pocket-watches to open up the case and show off the work normally hidden beneath. But to be able to see a watch movement in action is to also to fully appreciate the wonders
of watchmaking’s micro engineering.

Audemars Piguet

Royal Oak Offshore Selfwinding Flying Tourbillon Chronograph

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Selfwinding Flying Tourbillon Chronograph

The Royal Oak is a stone cold classic, one of the many designs of the legendary watch designer Gerald Genta. That was first released 50 years ago last year. And then this year marks the 30th birthday of the Offshore, the Royal Oak’s bolder and beefier brother.

Remarkably, with this 43mm titanium and ceramic tourbillon chronograph Audemars Piguet has come up with a fresh interpretation, still recognisably ‘Royal Oak’ but with a more technical feel to it.

Tourbillons often lend themselves to more classical presentation. AP has, instead, gone full modern – and pulled it off with aplomb.

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Vacheron Constantin

Traditionelle Tourbillon Retrograde Date Openface

Vacheron Constantin Excalibur Monobalancier Titanium

More an ‘open dial’ than a fully skeletonised movement – open dial is also having something of a moment, as new pieces by A. Lange & Sohne and Patek Philippe suggest – it’s nonetheless hard to complain when this Traditionnelle model also comes with a tourbillon and retrograde date complication. That’s the kind of thing to get watch nerds palpitating.

But this is clever aesthetically as well as technically. If even part-skeletonised movements largely fail when it comes to legibility – that intention to show off the movement can leave users unsure what is a hand and what isn’t – here there’s just enough of a dial, albeit one comprising layers, to provide the necessary clarity. It’s as though there’s a full dial there and not at the same time. Flip the whole thing over and the casebook view is likely the most beautiful you’ve seen in a long while.

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Roger Dubuis

Excalibur Monobalancier Titanium

Roger Dubuis Excalibur Monobalancier Titanium

If the defining ethos of the skeleton watch is to minimise material usage, then to employ as much grade-5 titanium as possible makes sense. This version of the Excalibur Monobalancier does just that: 42mm case, bezel, bracelet, the lot is made from a metal 33% lighter than steel but stronger with it. But Roger Dubuis goes one step further. In this model even the micro rotor – essentially a weight that powers the watch – has been skeletonised.

The decision to do so affects the operational balance of the whole movement, and is possible largely because of the company designing and developing all parts of its movements from scratch, rather than the more standard approach of buying in a movement. The skeleton aesthetic is the hallmark of the Excalibur line – and this is one time where you’ll be pleased to get even less for your money.

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Submersible S BRABUS Black Ops Edition

Panerai Submersible S BRABUS Black Ops Edition

If a Navy SEAL had to go stealth but, for reasons unknown, also wanted to show off his taste in ‘haute horlogerie’ complications, then this Panerai model – its first automatic skeleton watch – should be top of his list.

Bar the bold red and white sword hand tips (and a couple of other red accents), this Submersible is all matte black, including the movement, which sits almost in the shadows and means that the Navy SEAL will still be able to tell the time in low light.

The watch is a product of a design collaboration with Brabus, the German automotive and sports boat resto-mod company, and while it’s mostly functional in its mission, up close the proprietary Carbotech carbon composite material from which the case is made gives it a subtle striated pattern.

The most interesting detail though? That’s the patented polarised lens that sits over the date window, allowing it to seemingly hover and not impede your view of the movement.

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Parmigiani Fleurier

Fleurier Tonda PF Skeleton

Parmigiani Fleurier Fleurier Tonda PF Skeleton

Parmigiani Fleurier is going great guns with its Tonda PF, which is fast becoming its signature piece. There’s been a standard time and date model, then a chronograph, annual calendar, rattrapante chronograph, GMT and now a skeletonised model to (maybe) complete the collection.

Not all designs are so easily adapted to so many different styles of watch, but the 40mm Tonda PF succeeds here again, the gold hands – even they’re skeletonised – standing out clearly against the matt anthracite grey movement.

That tone is the product of NAC, a material that only passed wear-and-tear tests for use in watchmaking six years ago, so remains rare. The same contrast is achieved in the rear view, setting a skeletonised gold rotor off against the grey. All in all, it’s an extremely elegant watch.

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Octo Finissimo Skeleton 8 Days in titanium

Bulgari Octo Finissimo Skeleton 8 Days in titanium

It’s all very well skeletonising a movement if you’re working within normal watchmaking parameters. If you’re trying to give your watch over eight days’ power reserve from a single barrel, and then make the whole movement just 2.5mm deep, and then skeletonise it all, then matters are not so simple – that’s even if, as a brand, your reputation for thinning down precedes you.

But that’s what Bulgari has achieved with this (almost record-breaking) model, in what appears to be ‘very 2023’ monochromatic shades of grey sandblasted titanium.

OK, so the polished silver hands are going to have anyone reaching for their phone when they want the time. But the sheer style of this take on the Octo Finissimo – including that integrated bracelet – forgives all shortcomings.

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Grand Seiko


Grand Seiko Kodo

Grand Seiko’s watches are best known for their refined simplicity – a more left-field option to a Rolex Oyster, in many ways. So the first skeletonised watch from the brand is a considerable aesthetic departure.

It’s made that leap with some fanfare, too – this is also the first complication in Grand Seiko’s 62 years, one that happens to be the world’s first tourbillon and constant-force mechanism on
a single axis at that.

What does that mean? In short, the two systems together provide a counteraction to the effects of gravity on the timekeeping of the movement and a steady delivery of torque. Result? Even more precision.

Naturally, watch fans want to see this in action and the kodo – that’s Japanese for ‘heartbeat’ – is on full display, even if that’s less true of the actual time.

All the same, it’s one in the eye for the Swiss. You will, however, require £310,000 to buy one.

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Diastar Skeleton

Rado Diastar Skeleton

At first glance, skeletonising the movement of a Rado DiaStar seems like a lost cause. That’s not because it isn’t possible.

But with that large oval bezel, tungsten-carbide case and faceted crystal – characteristics that made it distinctive when it was unveiled in 1962 as the world’s first scratch-proof watch – you’ve already got a lot of visual appeal to compete with.

But, happily, the automatic movement, with an anthracite grey coating – did we mention how grey is the Colour of the Year? – adds rather than detracts.

Indeed, the airiness of the skeletonised movement arguably lessens the case’s visual heaviness somewhat. Even the quirky hour and seconds hands bring levity. In many ways this is crazily unconventional piece. The watch market needs more like it. Bravo Rado!

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Richard Mille

RM 72-01 Automatic Flyback Chronograph Le Mans Classic

Richard Mille RM 72-01 Automatic Flyback Chronograph Le Mans Classic

Richard Mille is so aligned with cars that it co-founded the Le Mans Classic – the vintage sports car event. So it’s no surprise the brand wanted to capitalise on this with a dedicated timepiece.

The result is this: a limited-edition model with racing green and neon orange accents. If you’re the kind of guy who enjoys talking about watch construction as much as you do, say, carburettors, then behold: the RM 72-01’s case is made from a solid block of white quartz TPT, which is a material comprising many layers of interwoven quartz fibres – sandwiched between layers of the same material in green, this time heated to give it a unique pattern.

And that’s before you’ve got under the bonnet where you’ll find a free-spring screw balance or the variable geometry rotor.

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UR-100V Magic T

Urwerk UR-100V Magic T

What? Grey? Again?! Thanks to a love affair with raw, shot-blasted titanium, the colour of concrete is king again with this model from independent watchmaker Urwerk. But this is a restrained design for Urwerk, taking its already established 100V and dialling back on its more typical use of colour.

Instead, it lets the play of light on the metal itself bring interest. This only adds to the striking dial, with the brand’s signature in-house satellite read-out and two recessed sections, one of which indicates the distance travelled on Earth over a 20-minute period, the other the distance travelled by Earth over the same. Why? Why not?

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Defy Skyline Skeleton

Zenith Defy Skyline Skeleton

When designing a skeleton watch, you don’t have to do away with the dial altogether. After all, sometimes some clothing is more tantalising than nakedness.

Zenith appears to follow this philosophy even with its El Primero, a movement so acclaimed that it might well have undressed with abandon. Rather, in cutting out sections of the dial to create a star-like pattern in contrasting blue, it has created a watch of greater visual distinction and architectural substance.

If skeleton watches can sometimes suggest fragility, the 41mm, time-and-date Skyline suggests lightness with rigidity, the faced bezel, screw-down crown and quick-change straps system – meaning it can easily be shifted from bracelet to outdoorsy rubber – only adding to this sense of toughness.

The Defy line is where Zenith lets rip on its more outlandish design ideas. This is one of its more accessible.

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Orient Star

Contemporary Full Skeleton

Orient Star Contemporary Full Skeleton

You may not be familiar with Orient Star – it’s the high-end line of watches from Orient, a Japanese brand established in 1950 as a maker of affordable timepieces. It is then, as Grand Seiko is to Seiko.

That’s not the only similarity. Much as Grand Seiko is renowned for its Zaratsu polishing – a technique using high-grit sandpaper to create very sharp lines between brushed and reflective surfaces – so Orient has Sallaz mirror finishing. It’s so shiny as to look black from some angles.

It’s used to striking effect in the new Contemporary Full Skeleton, which also includes a 22-jewel movement and weekend-busting 70-hour power reserve. Best of all? The bright blue silicon escape wheel.

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